Story by: Matsuo Basho
This is a sample short comic strip representation of “The Aged Mother” story by Matsuo Basho. The character’s names were fictional, and not use the real character’s name based on the story.BY: Ⓐ Parker ▒ Life Lessons ▒ LOVE
Story by: Matsuo Basho
This is a sample short comic strip representation of “The Aged Mother” story by Matsuo Basho. The character’s names were fictional, and not use the real character’s name based on the story.BY: Ⓐ Parker ▒ Life Lessons ▒ LOVE
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In the 1940s, there was a man who, at the age of 65, was living off of $99 social security checks in a small house, driving a beat-up car.
He decided it was time to make a change, so he thought about what he had to offer that other people may benefit from. His mind went to his fried chicken recipe, which his friends and family loved.
He left his home state of Kentucky and traveled throughout the country, trying to sell his recipe to restaurants. He even offered the recipe for free, asking for only a small chunk of the money that was earned.
However, most of the restaurants declined his offer. In fact, 1,009 restaurants said no.
But even after all of the rejections, he persisted. He believed in himself and his chicken recipe.
When he visited restaurant #1,010, he got a YES.
His name? Colonel Hartland Sanders.
There are a few lessons that you can take away from this story. First, it’s never too late in life to find success. In a society that often celebrates young, successful people, it’s easy to start to think you’re never going to be successful after a certain age. However, Colonel Sanders is an example that proves that argument wrong.
This story also demonstrates the power of persistence. You have to have confidence in yourself and believe in your work for other people to believe it also. Disregard anyone who tells you “no” and simply move on.31 Best Inspirational Short Stories with a Motivating Moral (developgoodhabits.com)
The Black Cat was first published in the August 19, 1843, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. This story is featured in our collection of Halloween Stories and The Unreliable Narrator. [The illustration below is an original painting by Anna Pędzik and is used with her permission.]
From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character grew with my growth, and in my manhood, I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man .
This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point – and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.
Pluto – this was the cat’s name – was my favorite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets.
Our friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years, during which my general temperament and character – through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance – had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse. I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them. For Pluto, however, I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating him, as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog, when by accident, or through affection, they came in my way. But my disease grew upon me – for what disease is like Alcohol! – and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish – even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill temper.
One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body, of my frame. I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.
When reason returned with the morning – when I had slept off the fumes of the night’s debauch – I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty; but it was, at best, a feeble and equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched. I again plunged into excess, and soon drowned in wine all memory of the deed.
In the meantime the cat slowly recovered. The socket of the lost eye presented, it is true, a frightful appearance, but he no longer appeared to suffer any pain. He went about the house as usual, but, as might be expected, fled in extreme terror at my approach. I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart – one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself – to offer violence to its own nature – to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only – that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; – hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; – hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; – hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin – a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it – if such a thing wore possible – even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire. The curtains of my bed were in flames. The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that my wife, a servant, and myself, made our escape from the conflagration. The destruction was complete. My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to despair.
I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts – and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect. On the day succeeding the fire, I visited the ruins. The walls, with one exception, had fallen in. This exception was found in a compartment wall, not very thick, which stood about the middle of the house, and against which had rested the head of my bed. The plastering had here, in great measure, resisted the action of the fire – a fact which I attributed to its having been recently spread. About this wall a dense crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with very minute and eager attention. The words “strange!” “singular!” and other similar expressions, excited my curiosity. I approached and saw, as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat. The impression was given with an accuracy truly marvellous. There was a rope about the animal’s neck.
When I first beheld this apparition – for I could scarcely regard it as less – my wonder and my terror were extreme. But at length reflection came to my aid. The cat, I remembered, had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd – by some one of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from sleep. The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.
Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience, for the startling fact just detailed, it did not the less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy. For months I could not rid myself of the phantasm of the cat; and, during this period, there came back into my spirit a half-sentiment that seemed, but was not, remorse. I went so far as to regret the loss of the animal, and to look about me, among the vile haunts which I now habitually frequented, for another pet of the same species, and of somewhat similar appearance, with which to supply its place.
I continued my caresses, and, when I prepared to go home, the animal evinced a disposition to accompany me. I permitted it to do so; occasionally stooping and patting it as I proceeded. When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favorite with my wife.
For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This was just the reverse of what I had anticipated; but – I know not how or why it was – its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed. By slow degrees, these feelings of disgust and annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred. I avoided the creature; a certain sense of shame, and the remembrance of my former deed of cruelty, preventing me from physically abusing it. I did not, for some weeks, strike, or otherwise violently ill use it; but gradually – very gradually – I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing, and to flee silently from its odious presence, as from the breath of a pestilence.
What added, no doubt, to my hatred of the beast, was the discovery, on the morning after I brought it home, that, like Pluto, it also had been deprived of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared it to my wife, who, as I have already said, possessed, in a high degree, that humanity of feeling which had once been my distinguishing trait, and the source of many of my simplest and purest pleasures.
With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would crouch beneath my chair, or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I arose to walk it would get between my feet and thus nearly throw me down, or, fastening its long and sharp claws in my dress, clamber, in this manner, to my breast. At such times, although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly – let me confess it at once – by absolute dread of the beast.
This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil – and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own – yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own – that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimeras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees – degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful – it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name – and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared – it was now, I say, the image of a hideous – of a ghastly thing – of the GALLOWS ! – oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime – of Agony and of Death !
And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity. And a brute beast – whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed – a brute beast to work out for me – for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God – so much of insufferable wo! Alas! neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of Rest any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the latter, I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight – an incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off – incumbent eternally upon my heart!
Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates – the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.
One day she accompanied me, upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit. The cat followed me down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing me headlong, exasperated me to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting, in my wrath, the childish dread which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at the animal which, of course, would have proved instantly fatal had it descended as I wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded, by the interference, into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot, without a groan.
This hideous murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith, and with entire deliberation, to the task of concealing the body. I knew that I could not remove it from the house, either by day or by night, without the risk of being observed by the neighbors. Many projects entered my mind. At one period I thought of cutting the corpse into minute fragments, and destroying them by fire. At another, I resolved to dig a grave for it in the floor of the cellar. Again, I deliberated about casting it in the well in the yard – about packing it in a box, as if merchandize, with the usual arrangements, and so getting a porter to take it from the house. Finally I hit upon what I considered a far better expedient than either of these. I determined to wall it up in the cellar – as the monks of the middle ages are recorded to have walled up their victims.
For a purpose such as this the cellar was well adapted. Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fireplace, that had been filled up, and made to resemble the red of the cellar. I made no doubt that I could readily displace the bricks at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the whole up as before, so that no eye could detect any thing suspicious. And in this calculation I was not deceived. By means of a crow-bar I easily dislodged the bricks, and, having carefully deposited the body against the inner wall, I propped it in that position, while, with little trouble, I re-laid the whole structure as it originally stood. Having procured mortar, sand, and hair, with every possible precaution, I prepared a plaster which could not be distinguished from the old, and with this I very carefully went over the new brickwork. When I had finished, I felt satisfied that all was right. The wall did not present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed. The rubbish on the floor was picked up with the minutest care. I looked around triumphantly, and said to myself – “Here at least, then, my labor has not been in vain.”
My next step was to look for the beast which had been the cause of so much wretchedness; for I had, at length, firmly resolved to put it to death. Had I been able to meet with it, at the moment, there could have been no doubt of its fate; but it appeared that the crafty animal had been alarmed at the violence of my previous anger, and forebore to present itself in my present mood. It is impossible to describe, or to imagine, the deep, the blissful sense of relief which the absence of the detested creature occasioned in my bosom. It did not make its appearance during the night – and thus for one night at least, since its introduction into the house, I soundly and tranquilly slept; aye, slept even with the burden of murder upon my soul!
The second and the third day passed, and still my tormentor came not. Once again I breathed as a freeman. The monster, in terror, had fled the premises forever! I should behold it no more! My happiness was supreme! The guilt of my dark deed disturbed me but little. Some few inquiries had been made, but these had been readily answered. Even a search had been instituted – but of course nothing was to be discovered. I looked upon my future felicity as secured.
Upon the fourth day of the assassination, a party of the police came, very unexpectedly, into the house, and proceeded again to make rigorous investigation of the premises. Secure, however, in the inscrutability of my place of concealment, I felt no embarrassment whatever. The officers bade me accompany them in their search. They left no nook or corner unexplored. At length, for the third or fourth time, they descended into the cellar. I quivered not in a muscle. My heart beat calmly as that of one who slumbers in innocence. I walked the cellar from end to end. I folded my arms upon my bosom, and roamed easily to and fro. The police were thoroughly satisfied and prepared to depart. The glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness.
“Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, “I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this – this is a very well constructed house.” [In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.] – “I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls are you going, gentlemen? – these walls are solidly put together;” and here, through the mere phrenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend ! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice from within the tomb! – by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman – a howl – a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the dammed in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.
Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!
A “boon” (noun) is something that is considered beneficial or helpful.
In the morning of life came a good fairy with her basket, and said:
“Here are gifts. Take one, leave the others. And be wary, chose wisely; oh, choose wisely! for only one of them is valuable.”
The gifts were five: Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure, Death. The youth said, eagerly:
“There is no need to consider”; and he chose Pleasure.
He went out into the world and sought out the pleasures that youth delights in. But each in its turn was short-lived and disappointing, vain and empty; and each, departing, mocked him. In the end he said: “These years I have wasted. If I could but choose again, I would choose wisely.
The fairy appeared, and said:
“Four of the gifts remain. Choose once more; and oh, remember– time is flying, and only one of them is precious.”
The man considered long, then chose Love; and did not mark the tears that rose in the fairy’s eyes.
After many, many years the man sat by a coffin, in an empty home. And he communed with himself, saying: “One by one they have gone away and left me; and now she lies here, the dearest and the last. Desolation after desolation has swept over me; for each hour of happiness the treacherous trader, Love, as sold me I have paid a thousand hours of grief. Out of my heart of hearts I curse him.”
“Choose again.” It was the fairy speaking.
“The years have taught you wisdom–surely it must be so. Three gifts remain. Only one of them has any worth–remember it, and choose warily.”
The man reflected long, then chose Fame; and the fairy, sighing, went her way.
Years went by and she came again, and stood behind the man where he sat solitary in the fading day, thinking. And she knew his thought:
“My name filled the world, and its praises were on every tongue, and it seemed well with me for a little while. How little a while it was! Then came envy; then detraction; then calumny; then hate; then persecution. Then derision, which is the beginning of the end. And last of all came pity, which is the funeral of fame. Oh, the bitterness and misery of renown! target for mud in its prime, for contempt and compassion in its decay.”
“Chose yet again.” It was the fairy’s voice.
“Two gifts remain. And do not despair. In the beginning there was but one that was precious, and it is still here.”
“Wealth–which is power! How blind I was!” said the man. “Now, at last, life will be worth the living. I will spend, squander, dazzle. These mockers and despisers will crawl in the dirt before me, and I will feed my hungry heart with their envy. I will have all luxuries, all joys, all enchantments of the spirit, all contentments of the body that man holds dear. I will buy, buy, buy! deference, respect, esteem, worship–every pinchbeck grace of life the market of a trivial world can furnish forth. I have lost much time, and chosen badly heretofore, but let that pass; I was ignorant then, and could but take for best what seemed so.”
Three short years went by, and a day came when the man sat shivering in a mean garret; and he was gaunt and wan and hollow-eyed, and clothed in rags; and he was gnawing a dry crust and mumbling:
“Curse all the world’s gifts, for mockeries and gilded lies! And miscalled, every one. They are not gifts, but merely lendings. Pleasure, Love, Fame, Riches: they are but temporary disguises for lasting realities–Pain, Grief, Shame, Poverty. The fairy said true; in all her store there was but one gift which was precious, only one that was not valueless. How poor and cheap and mean I know those others now to be, compared with that inestimable one, that dear and sweet and kindly one, that steeps in dreamless and enduring sleep the pains that persecute the body, and the shames and griefs that eat the mind and heart. Bring it! I am weary, I would rest.”
The fairy came, bringing again four of the gifts, but Death was wanting. She said:
“I gave it to a mother’s pet, a little child. It was ignorant, but trusted me, asking me to choose for it. You did not ask me to choose.”
“Oh, miserable me! What is left for me?”
“What not even you have deserved: the wanton insult of Old Age.”
The Five Boons of Life was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Sun, Sep 24, 2017
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When we started for our drive the sun was shining brightly on Munich, and the air was full of the joyousness of early summer. Just as we were about to depart, Herr Delbruck (the maitre d’hotel of the Quatre Saisons, where I was staying) came down bareheaded to the carriage and, after wishing me a pleasant drive, said to the coachman, still holding his hand on the handle of the carriage door, “Remember you are back by nightfall. The sky looks bright but there is a shiver in the north wind that says there may be a sudden storm. But I am sure you will not be late.” Here he smiled and added,”for you know what night it is.”
Johann answered with an emphatic, “Ja, mein Herr,” and, touching his hat, drove off quickly. When we had cleared the town, I said, after signalling to him to stop:
“Tell me, Johann, what is tonight?”
He crossed himself, as he answered laconically: “Walpurgis nacht.” Then he took out his watch, a great, old-fashioned German silver thing as big as a turnip and looked at it, with his eyebrows gathered together and a little impatient shrug of his shoulders. I realized that this was his way of respectfully protesting against the unnecessary delay and sank back in the carriage, merely motioning him to proceed. He started off rapidly, as if to make up for lost time. Every now and then the horses seemed to throw up their heads and sniff the air suspiciously. On such occasions I often looked round in alarm. The road was pretty bleak, for we were traversing a sort of high windswept plateau. As we drove,I saw a road that looked but little used and which seemed to dip through a little winding valley. It looked so inviting that, even at the risk of offending him, I called Johann to stop–and when he had pulled up, I told him I would like to drive down that road. He made all sorts of excuses and frequently crossed himself as he spoke. This somewhat piqued my curiosity, so I asked him various questions. He answered fencingly and repeatedly looked at his watch in protest.
Finally I said, “Well, Johann, I want to go down this road. I shall not ask you to come unless you like; but tell me why you do not like to go, that is all I ask.” For answer he seemed to throw himself off the box, so quickly did he reach the ground. Then he stretched out his hands appealingly to me and implored me not to go. There was just enough of English mixed with the German for me to understand the drift of his talk. He seemed always just about to tell me something–the very idea of which evidently frightened him; but each time he pulled himself up saying, “Walpurgis nacht!”
I tried to argue with him, but it was difficult to argue with a man when I did not know his language. The advantage certainly rested with him, for although he began to speak in English, of a very crude and broken kind, he always got excited and broke into his native tongue–and every time he did so, he looked at his watch. Then the horses became restless and sniffed the air. At this he grew very pale, and, looking around in a frightened way, he suddenly jumped forward, took them by the bridles,and led them on some twenty feet. I followed and asked why he had done this. For an answer he crossed himself, pointed to the spot we had left, and drew his carriage in the direction of the other road, indicating a cross, and said, first in German, then in English, “Buried him–him what killed themselves.”
I remembered the old custom of burying suicides at cross roads: “Ah! I see, a suicide. How interesting!” But for the life of me I could not make out why the horses were frightened.
Whilst we were talking, we heard a sort of sound between a yelp and a bark.It was far away; but the horses got very restless, and it took Johann all his time to quiet them. He was pale and said, “It sounds like a wolf–but yet there are no wolves here now.”
“No?” I said, questioning him. “Isn’t it long since the wolves were so near the city?”
“Long, long,” he answered, “in the spring and summer; but with the snow the wolves have been here not so long.”
Whilst he was petting the horses and trying to quiet them, dark clouds drifted rapidly across the sky. The sunshine passed away, and a breath of cold wind seemed to drift over us.It was only a breath, however, and more of a warning than a fact, for the sun came out brightly again.
Johann looked under his lifted hand at the horizon and said, “The storm of snow, he comes before long time.” Then he looked at his watch again, and, straightway holding his reins firmly–for the horses were still pawing the ground restlessly and shaking their heads–he climbed to his box as though the time had come for proceeding on our journey.
I felt a little obstinate and did not at once get into the carriage.
“Tell me,” I said, “about this place where the road leads,” and I pointed down.
Again he crossed himself and mumbled a prayer before he answered, “It is unholy.”
“What is unholy?” I enquired.
“Then there is a village?”
“No, no. No one lives there hundreds of years.”
My curiosity was piqued, “But you said there was a village.”
“Where is it now?”
Whereupon he burst out into a long story in German and English, so mixed up that I could not quite understand exactly what he said. Roughly I gathered that long ago, hundreds of years, men had died there and been buried in their graves; but sounds were heard under the clay, and when the graves were opened,men and women were found rosy with life and their mouths red with blood. And so, in haste to save their lives (aye, and their souls!–and here he crossed himself)those who were left fled away to other places, where the living lived and the dead were dead and not–not something. He was evidently afraid to speak the last words. As he proceeded with his narration, he grew more and more excited. It seemed as if his imagination had got hold of him, and he ended in a perfect paroxysm of fear–white-faced, perspiring, trembling, and looking round him as if expecting that some dreadful presence would manifest itself there in the bright sunshine on the open plain.
Finally, in an agony of desperation, he cried, “Walpurgis nacht!” and pointed to the carriage for me to get in.
All my English blood rose at this,and standing back I said, “You are afraid, Johann–you are afraid. Go home, I shall return alone, the walk will do me good.” The carriage door was open. I took from the seat my oak walking stick–which I always carry on my holiday excursions–and closed the door, pointing back to Munich, and said, “Go home,Johann–Walpurgis nacht doesn’t concern Englishmen.”
The horses were now more restive than ever, and Johann was trying to hold them in, while excitedly imploring me not to do anything so foolish. I pitied the poor fellow, he was so deeply in earnest; but all the same I could not help laughing. His English was quite gone now. In his anxiety he had forgotten that his only means of making me understand was to talk my language, so he jabbered away in his native German. It began to be a little tedious. After giving the direction, “Home!” I turned to go down the cross road into the valley.
With a despairing gesture,Johann turned his horses towards Munich. I leaned on my stick and looked after him. He went slowly along the road for a while, then there came over the crest of the hill a man tall and thin. I could see so much in the distance. When he drew near the horses,they began to jump and kick about, then to scream with terror. Johann could not hold them in; they bolted down the road, running away madly. I watched them out of sight, then looked for the stranger; but I found that he, too, was gone.
With a light heart I turned down the side road through the deepening valley to which Johann had objected. There was not the slightest reason,that I could see, for his objection; and I daresay I tramped for a couple of hours without thinking of time or distance and certainly without seeing a person or a house. So far as the place was concerned, it was desolation itself. But I did not notice this particularly till, on turning a bend in the road,I came upon a scattered fringe of wood; then I recognized that I had been impressed unconsciously by the desolation of the region through which I had passed.
I sat down to rest myself and began to look around. It struck me that it was considerably colder than it had been at the commencement of my walk–a sort of sighing sound seemed to be around me with, now and then, high overhead, a sort of muffled roar. Looking upwards I noticed that great thick clouds were drafting rapidly across the sky from north to south at a great height.There were signs of a coming storm in some lofty stratum of the air. I was a little chilly, and, thinking that it was the sitting still after the exercise of walking, I resumed my journey.
The ground I passed over was now much more picturesque. There were no striking objects that the eye might single out, but in all there was a charm of beauty.I took little heed of time, and it was only when the deepening twilight forced itself upon me that I began to think of how I should find my way home. The air was cold, and the drifting of clouds high overhead was more marked. They were accompanied by a sort of far away rushing sound, through which seemed to come at intervals that mysterious cry which the driver had said came from a wolf. For a while I hesitated. I had said I would see the deserted village, so on I went and presently came on a wide stretch of open country, shut in by hills all around. Their sides were covered with trees which spread down to the plain, dotting in clumps the gentler slopes and hollows which showed here and there.I followed with my eye the winding of the road and saw that it curved close to one of the densest of these clumps and was lost behind it.
As I looked there came a cold shiver in the air, and the snow began to fall. I thought of the miles and miles of bleak country I had passed, and then hurried on to seek shelter of the wood in front. Darker and darker grew the sky, and faster and heavier fell the snow, till the earth before and around me was a glistening white carpet the further edge of which was lost in misty vagueness. The road was here but crude, and when on the level its boundaries were not so marked as when it passed through the cuttings; and in a little while I found that I must have strayed from it, for I missed underfoot the hard surface, and my feet sank deeper in the grass and moss. Then the wind grew stronger and blew with ever increasing force, till I was fain to run before it. The air became icy-cold, and in spite of my exercise I began to suffer. The snow was now falling so thickly and whirling around me in such rapid eddies that I could hardly keep my eyes open. Every now and then the heavens were torn asunder by vivid lightning, and in the flashes I could see ahead of me a great mass of trees, chiefly yew and cypress all heavily coated with snow.
I was soon amongst the shelter of the trees, and there in comparative silence I could hear the rush of the wind high overhead. Presently the blackness of the storm had become merged in the darkness of the night. By-and-by the storm seemed to be passing away,it now only came in fierce puffs or blasts. At such moments the weird sound of the wolf appeared to be echoed by many similar sounds around me.
Now and again, through the black mass of drifting cloud, came a straggling ray of moonlight which lit up the expanse and showed me that I was at the edge of a dense mass of cypress and yew trees. As the snow had ceased to fall, I walked out from the shelter and began to investigate more closely. It appeared to me that, amongst so many old foundations as I had passed, there might be still standing a house in which, though in ruins,I could find some sort of shelter for a while. As I skirted the edge of the copse, I found that a low wall encircled it, and following this I presently found an opening. Here the cypresses formed an alley leading up to a square mass of some kind of building. Just as I caught sight of this, however, the drifting clouds obscured the moon, and I passed up the path in darkness. The wind must have grown colder, for I felt myself shiver as I walked; but there was hope of shelter, and I groped my way blindly on.
I stopped, for there was a sudden stillness. The storm had passed; and, perhaps in sympathy with nature’s silence, my heart seemed to cease to beat. But this was only momentarily; for suddenly the moonlight broke through the clouds showing me that I was in a graveyard and that the square object before me was a great massive tomb of marble, as white as the snow that lay on and all around it. With the moonlight there came a fierce sigh of the storm which appeared to resume its course with a long, low howl, as of many dogs or wolves.I was awed and shocked, and I felt the cold perceptibly grow upon me till it seemed to grip me by the heart. Then while the flood of moonlight still fell on the marble tomb, the storm gave further evidence of renewing, as though it were returning on its track. Impelled by some sort of fascination, I approached the sepulchre to see what it was and why such a thing stood alone in such a place.I walked around it and read, over the Doric door, in German–
COUNTESS DOLINGEN OF GRATZ
SOUGHT AND FOUND DEATH
On the top of the tomb, seemingly driven through the solid marble–for the structure was composed of a few vast blocks of stone–was a great iron spike or stake. On going to the back I saw, graven in great Russian letters: “The dead travel fast.”
There was something so weird and uncanny about the whole thing that it gave me a turn and made me feel quite faint. I began to wish, for the first time, that I had taken Johann’s advice. Here a thought struck me, which came under almost myssterious circumstances and with a terrible shock. This was Walpurgis Night!
Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad–when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel. This very place the driver had specially shunned. This was the depopulated village of centuries ago.This was where the suicide lay; and this was the place where I was alone–unmanned, shivering with cold in a shroud of snow with a wild storm gathering again upon me! It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught,all my courage,not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright.
And now a perfect tornado burst upon me. The ground shook as though thousands of horses thundered across it; and this time the storm bore on its icy wings, not snow, but great hailstones which drove with such violence that they might have come from the thongs of Balearic slingers–hailstones that beat down leaf and branch and made the shelter of the cypresses of no more avail than though their stems were standing corn. At the first I had rushed to the nearest tree;but I was soon fain to leave it and seek the only spot that seemed to afford refuge, the deep Doric doorway of the marble tomb. There, crouching against the massive bronze door, I gained a certain amount of protection from the beating of the hailstones, for now they only drove against me as they ricochetted from the ground and the side of the marble.
As I leaned against the door, it moved slightly and opened inwards. The shelter of even a tomb was welcome in that pitiless tempest and I was about to enter it when there came a flash of forked lightning that lit up the whole expanse of the heavens. In the instant, as I am a living man, I saw, as my my eyes turned into the darkness of the tomb, a beautiful woman with rounded cheeks and red lips, seemingly sleeping on a bier. As the thunder broke overhead, I was grasped as by the hand of a giant and hurled out into the storm. The whole thing was so sudden that, before I could realize the shock, moral as well as physical, I found the hailstones beating me down. At the same time I had a strange, dominating feeling that I was not alone. I looked towards the tomb. Just then there came another blinding flash which seemed to strike the iron stake that surmounted the tomb and to pour through to the earth, blasting and crumbling the marble, as in a burst of flame. The dead woman rose for a moment of agony while she was lapped in the flame, and her bitter scream of pain was drowned in the thundercrash. The last thing I heard was this mingling of dreadful sound,as again I was seized in the giant grasp and dragged away, while the hailstones beat on me and the air around seemed reverberant with the howling of wolves. The last sight that I remembered was a vague, white, moving mass,as if all the graves around me had sent out the phantoms of their sheeted dead, and that they were closing in on me through the white cloudiness of the driving hail.
Gradually there came a sort of vague beginning of consciousness, then a sense of weariness that was dreadful. For a time I remembered nothing, but slowly my senses returned. My feet seemed positively racked with pain, yet I could not move them. They seemed to be numbed. There was an icy feeling at the back of my neck and all down my spine, and my ears, like my feet, were dead yet in torment; but there was in my breast a sense of warmth which was by comparison delicious.It was as a nightmare–a physical nightmare, if one may use such an expression; for some heavy weight on my chest made it difficult for me to breathe.
This period of semilethargy seemed to remain a long time, and as it faded away I must have slept or swooned. Then came a sort of loathing, like the first stage of seasickness, and a wild desire to be free of something–I knew not what.A vast stillness enveloped me, as though all the world were asleep or dead–only broken by the low panting as of some animal close to me. I felt a warm rasping at my throat, then came a consciousness of the awful truth which chilled me to the heart and sent the blood surging up through my brain. Some great animal was lying on me and now licking my throat. I feared to stir, for some instinct of prudence bade me lie still; but the brute seemed to realize that there was now some change in me, for it raised its head. Through my eyelashes I saw above me the two great flaming eyes of a gigantic wolf. Its sharp white teeth gleamed in the gaping red mouth, and I could feel its hot breath fierce and acrid upon me.
For another spell of time I remembered no more. Then I became conscious of a low growl, followed by a yelp, renewed again and again. Then seemingly very far away, I heard a “Holloa! holloa!” as of many voices calling in unison. Cautiously I raised my head and looked in the direction whence the sound came, but the cemetery blocked my view. The wolf still continued to yelp in a strange way, and a red glare began to move round the grove of cypresses, as though following the sound. As the voices drew closer, the wolf yelped faster and louder. I feared to make either sound or motion. Nearer came the red glow over the white pall which stretched into the darkness around me. Then all at once from beyond the trees there came at a trot a troop of horsemen bearing torches. The wolf rose from my breast and made for the cemetery. I saw one of the horsemen (soldiers by their caps and their long military cloaks) raise his carbine and take aim. A companion knocked up his arm,and I heard the ball whiz over my head. He had evidently taken my body for that of the wolf. Another sighted the animal as it slunk away, and a shot followed. Then, at a gallop, the troop rode forward–some towards me, others following the wolf as it disappeared amongst the snow-clad cypresses.
As they drew nearer I tried to move but was powerless, although I could see and hear all that went on around me. Two or three of the soldiers jumped from their horses and knelt beside me. One of them raised my head and placed his hand over my heart.
“Good news, comrades!” he cried. “His heart still beats!”
Then some brandy was poured down my throat; it put vigor into me, and I was able to open my eyes fully and look around. Lights and shadows were moving among the trees, and I heard men call to one another. They drew together, uttering frightened exclamations; and the lights flashed as the others came pouring out of the cemetery pell-mell, like men possessed. When the further ones came close to us, those who were around me asked them eagerly, “Well, have you found him?”
The reply rang out hurriedly, “No! no! Come away quick-quick! This is no place to stay, and on this of all nights!”
“What was it?” was the question, asked in all manner of keys.The answer came variously and all indefinitely as though the men were moved by some common impulse to speak yet were restrained by some common fear from giving their thoughts.
“It–it–indeed!” gibbered one, whose wits had plainly given out for the moment.
“A wolf–and yet not a wolf!” another put in shudderingly.
“No use trying for him without the sacred bullet,” a third remarked in a more ordinary manner.
“Serve us right for coming out on this night!Truly we have earned our thousand marks!” were the ejaculations of a fourth.
“There was blood on the broken marble,” another said after a pause, “the lightning never brought that there. And for him — is he safe? Look at his throat! See comrades, the wolf has been lying on him and keeping his blood warm.”
The officer looked at my throat and replied, “He is all right, the skin is not pierced. What does it all mean? We should never have found him but for the yelping of the wolf.”
“What became of it?” asked the man who was holding up my head and who seemed the least panic-stricken of the party, for his hands were steady and without tremor. On his sleeve was the chevron of a petty officer.
“It went home,” answered the man, whose long face was pallid and who actually shook with terror as he glanced around him fearfully. “There are graves enough there in which it may lie. Come, comrades–come quickly! Let us leave this cursed spot.”
The officer raised me to a sitting posture, as he uttered a word of command; then several men placed me upon a horse.He sprang to the saddle behind me, took me in his arms, gave the word to advance; and, turning our faces away from the cypresses, we rode away in swift military order.
As yet my tongue refused its office, and I was perforce silent. I must have fallen asleep; for the next thing I remembered was finding myself standing up, supported by a soldier on each side of me. It was almost broad daylight, and to the north a red streak of sunlight was reflected like a path of blood over the waste of snow. The officer was telling the men to say nothing of what they had seen, except that they found an English stranger, guarded by a large dog.
“Dog! that was no dog,” cut in the man who had exhibited such fear. “I think I know a wolf when I see one.”
The young officer answered calmly, “I said a dog.”
“Dog!” reiterated the other ironically.It was evident that his courage was rising with the sun; and, pointing to me, he said, “Look at his throat. Is that the work of a dog, master?”
Instinctively I raised my hand to my throat, and as I touched it I cried out in pain. The men crowded round to look, some stooping down from their saddles;and again there came the calm voice of the young officer, “A dog, as I said. If aught else were said we should only be laughed at.”
I was then mounted behind a trooper, and we rode on into the suburbs of Munich. Here we came across a stray carriage into which I was lifted , and it was driven off to the Quatre Saisons–the young officer accompanying me, whilst a trooper followed with his horse, and the others rode off to their barracks.
When we arrived, Herr Delbruck rushed so quickly down the steps to meet me, that it was apparent he had been watching within. Taking me by both hands he solicitously led me in.The officer saluted me and was turning to withdraw, when I recognized his purpose and insisted that he should come to my rooms. Over a glass of wine I warmly thanked him and his brave comrades for saving me. He replied simply that he was more than glad, and that Herr Delbruck had at the first taken steps to make all the searching party pleased; at which ambiguous utterance the maitre d’hotel smiled, while the officer plead duty and withdrew.
“But Herr Delbruck,” I enquired, “how and why was it that the soldiers searched for me?”
He shrugged his shoulders, as if in depreciation of his own deed, as he replied, “I was so fortunate as to obtain leave from the commander of the regiment in which I serve, to ask for volunteers.”
“But how did you know I was lost?” I asked.
“The driver came hither with the remains of his carriage, which had been upset when the horses ran away.”
“But surely you would not send a search party of soldiers merely on this account?”
“Oh, no!” he answered, “but even before the coachman arrived, I had this telegram from the Boyar whose guest you are,” and he took from his pocket a telegram which he handed to me, and I read:
Bistritz. Be careful of my guest–his safety is most precious to me. Should aught happen to him, or if he be missed, spare nothing to find him and ensure his safety. He is English and therefore adventurous. There are often dangers from snow and wolves and night. Lose not a moment if you suspect harm to him. I answer your zeal with my fortune. –Dracula.
As I held the telegram in my hand,the room seemed to whirl around me,and if the attentive maitre d’hotel had not caught me,I think I should have fallen. There was something so strange in all this, something so weird and impossible to imagine, that there grew on me a sense of my being in some way the sport of opposite forces–the mere vague idea of which seemed in a way to paralyze me. I was certainly under some form of mysterious protection. From a distant country had come, in the very nick of time, a message that took me out of the danger of the snow sleep and the jaws of the wolf.
This story is featured in our collection of Halloween Stories.
“I had to say that while Easter eggs mostly hatched rabbits, there were instances in which they hatched other things, as, for instance, handfuls of eagles and half-eagles and double-eagles, especially in the case of the golden eggs that the goose laid. They knew all about that goose…”
The old fellow who told that story of dream-transference on a sleeping-car at Christmas-time was again at the club on Easter Eve. Halson had put him up for the winter, under the easy rule we had, and he had taken very naturally to the Turkish room for his after-dinner coffee and cigar. We all rather liked him, though it was Minver’s pose to be critical of the simple friendliness with which he made himself at home among us, and to feign a wish that there were fewer trains between Boston and New York, so that old Newton (that was his name) could have a better chance of staying away. But we noticed that Minver was always a willing listener to Newton’s talk, and that he sometimes hospitably offered to share his tobacco with the Bostonian. When brought to book for his inconsistency by Rulledge, he said he was merely welcoming the new blood, if not young blood, that Newton was infusing into our body, which had grown anaemic on Wanhope’s psychology and Rulledge’s romance; or, anyway, it was a change.
Newton now began by saying abruptly, in a fashion he had, “We used to hear a good deal in Boston about your Easter Parade here in New York. Do you still keep it up?”
No one else answering, Minver replied, presently, “I believe it is still going on. I understand that it’s composed mostly of milliners out to see one another’s new hats, and generous Jewesses who are willing to contribute the ‘dark and bright’ of the beauty in which they walk to the observance of an alien faith. It’s rather astonishing how the synagogue takes to the feasts of the church. If it were not for that, I don’t know what would become of Christmas.”
“What do you mean by their walking in beauty?” Rulledge asked over his shoulder.
“I shall never have the measure of your ignorance, Rulledge. You don’t even know Byron’s lines on Hebrew loveliness?
“‘She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes.'”
“Pretty good,” Rulledge assented. “And they _are_ splendid, sometimes. But what has the Easter Parade got to do with it?” he asked Newton.
“Oh, only what everything has with everything else. I was thinking of Eastertime long ago and far away, and naturally I thought of Easter now and here. I saw your Parade once, and it seemed to me one of the great social spectacles. But you can’t keep anything in New York, if it’s good; if it’s bad, you can.”
“You come from Boston, I think you said, Mr. Newton,” Minver breathed blandly through his smoke.
“Oh, I’m not a _real_ Bostonian,” our guest replied. “I’m not abusing you on behalf of a city that I’m a native proprietor of. If I were, I shouldn’t perhaps make your decadent Easter Parade my point of attack, though I think it’s a pity to let it spoil. I came from a part of the country where we used to make a great deal of Easter, when we were boys, at least so far as eggs went. I don’t know whether the grown people observed the day then, and I don’t know whether the boys keep it now; I haven’t been back at Eastertime for several generations. But when I was a boy it was a serious thing. In that soft Southwestern latitude, the grass had pretty well greened up by Easter, even when it came in March, and grass colors eggs a very nice yellow; it used to worry me that it didn’t color them green. When the grass hadn’t got along far enough, winter wheat would do as well. I don’t remember what color onion husks would give; but we used onion husks, too. Some mothers would let the boys get logwood from the drugstore, and that made the eggs a fine, bold purplish black. But the greatest egg of all was a calico egg, that you got by coaxing your grandmother (your mother’s mother) or your aunt (your mother’s sister) to sew up in a tight cover of brilliant calico. When that was boiled long enough the colors came off in a perfect pattern on the egg. Very few boys could get such eggs; when they did, they put them away in bureau drawers till they ripened and the mothers smelt them and threw them out of the window as quickly as possible. Always, after breakfast, Easter Morning, we came out on the street and fought eggs. We pitted the little ends of the eggs against one another, and the fellow whose egg cracked the other fellow’s egg won it, and he carried it off. I remember grass and wheat-colored eggs in such trials of strength, and onion and logwood colored eggs; but never calico eggs; _they_ were too precious to be risked; it would have seemed wicked.
“I don’t know,” the Boston man went musingly on, “why I should remember these things so relentlessly; I’ve forgotten all the important things that happened to me then; but perhaps these were the important things. Who knows? I only know I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Easter, not so much because of the calico eggs, perhaps, as because of the grandmothers and the aunts. I suppose the simple life is full of such aunts and grandmothers still; but you don’t find them in hotel apartments, or even in flats consisting of seven large, light rooms and bath.” We all recognized the language of the advertisements, and laughed in sympathy with our guest, who perhaps laughed out of proportion with a pleasantry of that size.
When he had subdued his mirth, he resumed at a point apparently very remote from that where he had started.
“There was one of those winters in Cambridge, where I lived then, that seemed tougher than any other we could remember, and they were all pretty tough winters there in those times. There were forty snowfalls between Thanksgiving and Fast Day–you don’t know what Fast Day is in New York, and we didn’t, either, as far as the fasting went–and the cold kept on and on till we couldn’t, or said we couldn’t, stand it any longer. So, along about the middle of March somewhere, we picked up the children and started south. In those days New York seemed pretty far south to us; and when we got here we found everything on wheels that we had left on runners in Boston. But the next day it began to snow, and we said we must go a little farther to meet the spring. I don’t know exactly what it was made us pitch on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; but we had a notion we should find it interesting, and, at any rate, a total change from our old environment. We had been reading something about the Moravians, and we knew that it was the capital of Moravianism, with the largest Moravian congregation in the world; I think it was Longfellow’s ‘Hymn of the Moravian Nuns’ that set us to reading about the sect; and we had somehow heard that the Sun Inn, at Bethlehem, was the finest old-fashioned public house anywhere. At any rate, we had the faith of our youthful years, and we put out for Bethlehem.
“We arrived just at dusk, but not so late that we couldn’t see the hospitable figure of a man coming out of the Sun to meet us at the omnibus door and to shake hands with each of us. It was the very pleasantest and sweetest welcome we ever had at a public house; and though we found the Sun a large, modern hotel, we easily accepted the landlord’s assurance that the old Inn was built up inside of the hotel, just as it was when Washington stayed in it; and after a mighty good supper we went to our rooms, which were piping warm from two good base-burner stoves. It was not exactly the vernal air we had expected of Bethlehem when we left New York; but you can’t have everything in this world, and, with the snowbanks along the streets outside, we were very glad to have the base-burners.
“We went to bed pretty early, and I fell into one of those exemplary sleeps that begin with no margin of waking after your head touches the pillow, or before that, even, and I woke from a dream of heavenly music that translated itself into the earthly notes of bugles. It made me sit up with the instant realization that we had arrived in Bethlehem on Easter Eve, and that this was Easter Morning. We had read of the beautiful observance of the feast by the Moravians, and, while I was hurrying on my clothes beside my faithful base-burner, I kept quite superfluously wondering at myself for not having thought of it, and so made sure of being called. I had waked just in time, though I hadn’t deserved to do so, and ought, by right, to have missed it all. I tried to make my wife come with me; but after the family is of a certain size a woman, if she is a real woman, thinks her husband can see things for her, and generally sends him out to reconnoitre and report. Besides, my wife couldn’t have left the children without waking them, to tell them she was going, and then all five of them would have wanted to come with us, including the baby; and we should have had no end of a time convincing them of the impossibility. We were a good deal bound up in the children, and we hated to lie to them when we could possibly avoid it. So I went alone.
“I asked the night porter, who was still on duty, the way I wanted to take, but there were so many people in the streets going the same direction that I couldn’t have missed it, anyhow; and pretty soon we came to the old Moravian cemetery, which was in the heart of the town; and there we found most of the Moravian congregation drawn up on three sides of the square, waiting and facing the east, which was beginning to redden. Of all the cemeteries I have seen, that was the most beautiful, because it was the simplest and humblest. Generally a cemetery is a dreadful place, with headstones and footstones and shafts and tombs scattered about, and looking like a field full of granite and marble stumps from the clearing of a petrified forest. But here all the memorial tablets lay flat with the earth. None of the dead were assumed to be worthier of remembrance than another; they all rested at regular intervals, with their tablets on their breasts, like shields, in their sleep after the battle of life. I was thinking how right and wise this was, and feeling the purity of the conception like a quality of the keen, clear air of the morning, which seemed to be breathing straight from the sky, when suddenly the sun blazed up from the horizon like a fire, and the instant it appeared the horns of the band began to blow and the people burst into a hymn–a thousand voices, for all I know. It was the sublimest thing I ever heard, and I don’t know that there’s anything to match it for dignity and solemnity in any religious rite. It made the tears come, for I thought how those people were of a church of missionaries and martyrs from the beginning, and I felt as if I were standing in sight and hearing of the first Christians after Christ. It was as if He were risen there ‘in the midst of them.'”
Rulledge looked round on the rest of us, with an air of acquiring merit from the Bostonian’s poetry, but Minver’s gravity was proof against the chance of mocking Rulledge, and I think we all felt alike. Wanhope seemed especially interested, though he said nothing.
“When I went home, I told my wife about it as well as I could, but, though she entered into the spirit of it, she was rather preoccupied. The children had all wakened, as they did sometimes, in a body, and were storming joyfully around the rooms, as if it were Christmas; and she was trying to get them dressed. ‘Do tell them what Easter is like; they’ve never seen it kept before,’ she said; and I tried to do so, while I took a hand, as a young father will, and tried to get them into their clothes. I don’t think I dwelt much on the religious observance of the day, but I dug up some of my profane associations with it in early life, and told them about coloring eggs, and fighting them, and all that; there in New England, in those days, they had never seen or heard of such a thing as an Easter egg.
“I don’t think my reminiscences quieted them much. They were all on fire–the oldest hoy and girl, and the twins, and even the two-year-old that we called the baby–to go out and buy some eggs and get the landlord to let them color them in the hotel kitchen. I had a deal of ado to make them wait till after breakfast, but I managed, somehow; and when we had finished–it was a mighty good Pennsylvania breakfast, such as we could eat with impunity in those halcyon days: rich coffee, steak, sausage, eggs, apple butter, buckwheat cakes and maple syrup–we got their out-door togs on them, while they were all stamping and shouting round and had to be caught and overcoated, and fur-capped and hooded simultaneously, and managed to get them into the street together. Ever been in Bethlehem?”
We all had to own our neglect of this piece of travel; and Newton, after a moment of silent forgiveness, said:
“Well, I don’t know how it is now, but twenty-five or thirty years ago it was the most interesting town in America. It wasn’t the old Moravian community that it had been twenty-five years before that, when none but Moravians could buy property there; but it was like the Sun Hotel, and just as that had grown round and over the old Sun Inn, the prosperous manufacturing town, with its iron-foundries and zinc-foundries, and all the rest of it, had grown round and over the original Moravian village. If you wanted a breath of perfect strangeness, with an American quality in it at the same time, you couldn’t have gone to any place where you could have had it on such terms as you could in Bethlehem. I can’t begin to go into details, but one thing was hearing German spoken everywhere in the street: not the German of Germany, but the Pennsylvania German, with its broad vowels and broken-down grammatical forms, and its English vocables and interjections, which you caught in the sentences which came to you, like _av coorse_, and _yes_ and _no_ for _ja_ and _nein_. There were stores where they spoke no English, and others where they made a specialty of it; and I suppose when we sallied out that bright Sunday morning, with the baby holding onto a hand of each of us between us, and the twins going in front with their brother and sister, we were almost as foreign as we should have been in a village on the Rhine or the Elbe.
“We got a little acquainted with the people, after a while, and I heard some stories of the country folks that I thought were rather good. One was about an old German farmer on whose land a prospecting metallurgist found zinc ore; the scientific man brought him the bright yellow button by which the zinc proved its existence in its union with copper, and the old fellow asked in an awestricken whisper: ‘Is it a gold-mine?’ ‘No, no. Guess again.’ ‘Then it’s a _brass-mine_!’ But before they began to find zinc there in the lovely Lehigh Valley–you can stand by an open zinc-mine and look down into it where the rock and earth are left standing, and you seem to be looking down into a range of sharp mountain peaks and pinnacles–it was the richest farming region in the whole fat State of Pennsylvania; and there was a young farmer who owned a vast tract of it, and who went to fetch home a young wife from Philadelphia way, somewhere. He drove there and back in his own buggy, and when he reached the top overlooking the valley, with his bride, he stopped his horse, and pointed with his whip. ‘There,’ he said, ‘as far as the sky is blue, it’s all ours!’ I thought that was fine.”
“Fine?” I couldn’t help bursting out; “it’s a stroke of poetry.”
Minver cut in: “The thrifty Acton making a note of it for future use in literature.”
“Eh!” Newton queried. “Oh! I don’t mind. You’re welcome to it, Mr. Acton. It’s a pity somebody shouldn’t use it, and of course _I_ can’t.”
“Acton will send you a copy with the usual forty-per-cent. discount and ten off for cash,” the painter said.
They had their little laugh at my expense, and then Newton took up his tale again. “Well, as I was saying–By the way, what _was_ I am saying?”
The story loving Rulledge remembered. “You went out with your wife and children for Easter eggs.”
“Oh yes. Thank you. Well, of course, in a town geographically American, the shops were all shut on Sunday, and we couldn’t buy even an Easter egg on Easter Sunday. But one of the stores had the shade of its show-window up, and the children simply glued themselves to it in such a fascination that we could hardly unstick them. That window was full of all kinds of Easter things–I don’t remember what all; but there were Easter eggs in every imaginable color and pattern, and besides these, there were whole troops of toy rabbits. I had forgotten that the natural offspring of Easter eggs is rabbits, but I took a brace, remembered the fact, and announced it to the children. They immediately demanded an explanation, with all sorts of scientific, which I gave them, as reckless of the truth as I thought my wife would suffer without contradicting me. I had to say that while Easter eggs mostly hatched rabbits, there were instances in which they hatched other things, as, for instance, handfuls of eagles and half-eagles and double-eagles, especially in the case of the golden eggs that the goose laid. They knew all about that goose; but I had to tell them what those unfamiliar pieces of American coinage were and promise to give them one each when they grew up if they were good. That only partially satisfied them, and they wanted to know specifically what other kinds of things Easter eggs would hatch if properly treated. Each one had a preference; the baby always preferred what the last one said; and _she_ wanted an ostrich, the same as her big brother; he was seven then.
“I don’t really know how we lived through the day; I mean the children, for my wife and I went to the Moravian church, and had a good long Sunday nap in the afternoon, while the children were pining for Monday morning, when they could buy eggs and begin to color them, so that they could hatch just the right kind of Easter things. When I woke up I had to fall in with a theory they had agreed to between them that any kind of two-legged or four-legged chick that hatched from an Easter egg would wear the same color, or the same kind of spots or stripes, that the egg had.
“I found that they had arranged to have calico eggs, and they were going to have their mother cover them with the same sort of cotton prints that I had said my grandmother and aunts used, and they meant to buy the calico in the morning at the same time that they bought the eggs. We had some tin vessels of water on our stoves to take the dryness out of the hot air, and they had decided that they would boil their eggs in these, and not trouble the landlord for the use of his kitchen.
“There was nothing in this scheme wanting but their mother’s consent–I agreed to it on the spot–but when she understood that they each expected to have two eggs apiece, with one apiece for us, she said she never could cover a dozen eggs in the world, and that the only way would be for them to go in the morning with us, and choose each the handsomest egg they could out of the eggs in that shop-window. They met this proposition rather blankly at first; but on reflection the big brother said it would be a shame to spoil mamma’s Easter by making her work all day, and besides it would keep till that night, anyway, before they could begin to have any fun with their eggs; and then the rest all said the same thing, ending with the baby: and accepted the inevitable with joy, and set about living through the day as well as they could.
“They had us up pretty early the next morning–that is, they had me up; their mother said that I had brought it on myself, and richly deserved it for exciting their imaginations, and I had to go out with the two oldest and the twins to choose the eggs; we got off from the baby by promising to let her have two, and she didn’t understand very well, anyway, and was awfully sleepy. We were a pretty long time choosing the six eggs, and I don’t remember now just what they were; but they were certainly joyous eggs; and–By the way, I don’t know why I’m boring a brand of hardened bachelors like you with all these domestic details?”
“Oh, don’t mind _us_,” Minver responded to his general appeal. “We may not understand the feelings of a father, but we are all mothers at heart, especially Rulledge. Go on. It’s very exciting,” he urged, not very ironically, and Newton went on.
“Well, I don’t believe I could say just how the havoc began. They put away their eggs very carefully after they had made their mother admire them, and shown the baby how hers were the prettiest, and they each said in succession that they must be very precious of them, for if you shook an egg, or anything, it wouldn’t hatch; and it was their plan to take these home and set an unemployed pullet, belonging to the big brother, to hatching them in the coop that he had built of laths for her in the back yard with his own hands. But long before the afternoon was over, the evil one had entered Eden, and tempted the boy to try fighting eggs with these treasured specimens, as I had told we boys used to fight eggs in my town in the southwest. He held a conquering course through the encounter with three eggs, but met his Waterloo with a regular Bluecher belonging to the baby. Then he instantly changed sides; and smashed his Bluecher against the last egg left. By that time all the other children were in tears, the baby roaring powerfully in ignorant sympathy, and the victor steeped in silent gloom. His mother made him gather up the ruins from the floor, and put them in the stove, and she took possession of the victorious egg, and said she would keep it till we got back to Cambridge herself, and not let one of them touch it. I can tell you it was a tragical time. I wanted to go out and buy them another set of eggs, and spring them for a surprise on them in the morning, after they had suffered enough that night. But she said that if I dared to dream of such a thing–which would be the ruin of the children’s character, by taking away the consequences of their folly–she should do, she did not know what, to me. Of course she was right, and I gave in, and helped the children forget all about it, so that by the time we got back to Cambridge I had forgotten about it myself.
“I don’t know what it was reminded the boy of that remaining Easter egg unless it was the sight of the unemployed pullet in her coop, which he visited the first thing; and I don’t know how he managed to wheedle his mother out of it; but the first night after I came home from business–it was rather late and the children had gone to bed–she told me that ridiculous boy, as she called him in self-exculpation, had actually put the egg under his pullet, and all the children were wild to see what it would hatch. ‘And now,’ she said, severely, ‘what are you going to do? You have filled their heads with those ideas, and I suppose you will have to invent some nonsense or other to fool them, and make them believe that it has hatched a giraffe, or an elephant, or something; they won’t be satisfied with anything less.’ I said we should have to try something smaller, for I didn’t think we could manage a chick of that size on our lot; and that I should trust in Providence. Then she said it was all very well to laugh; and that I couldn’t get out of it that way, and I needn’t think it.
“I didn’t, much. But the children understood that it took three weeks for an egg to hatch, and anyway the pullet was so intermittent in her attentions to the Easter egg, only sitting on it at night, or when held down by hand in the day, that there was plenty of time. One evening when I came out from Boston, I was met by a doleful deputation at the front gate, with the news that when the coop was visited that morning after breakfast–they visited the coop every morning before they went to school–the pullet was found perched on a cross-bar in a high state of nerves, and the shell of the Easter egg broken and entirely eaten out. Probably a rat had got in and done it, or, more hopefully, a mink, such as used to attack eggs in the town where I was a boy. We went out and viewed the wreck, as a first step towards a better situation; and suddenly a thought struck me. ‘Children,’ I said, ‘what did you really expect that egg to hatch, anyway?’ They looked askance at one another, and at last the boy said: ‘Well, you know, papa, an egg that’s been cooked–‘ And then we all laughed together, and I knew they had been making believe as much as I had, and no more expected the impossible of a boiled egg than I did.”
“That was charming!” Wanhope broke out. “There is nothing more interesting than the way children join in hypnotizing themselves with the illusions which their parents think _they_ have created without their help. In fact, it is very doubtful whether at any age we have any illusions except those of our own creation; we–“
“Let him go on, Wanhope,” Minver dictated; and Newton continued.
“It was rather nice. I asked them if their mother knew about the egg; and they said that of course they couldn’t help telling her; and I said: ‘Well, then, I’ll tell you what: we must make her believe that the chick hatched out and got away–‘ The boy stopped me: ‘Do you think that would be exactly true, papa?’ ‘Well, not _exactly_ true; but it’s only for the time being. We can tell her the exact truth afterwards,’ and then I laid my plan before them. They said it was perfectly splendid, and would be the greatest kind of joke on mamma, and one that she would like as much as anybody. The thing was to keep it from her till it was done, and they all promised that they wouldn’t tell; but I could see that they were bursting with the secret the whole evening.
“The next day was Saturday, when I always went home early, and I had the two oldest children come in with the second-girl, who left them to take lunch with me. They had chocolate and ice-cream, and after lunch we went around to a milliner’s shop in West Street, where my wife and I had stopped a long five minutes the week before we went to Bethlehem, adoring an Easter bonnet that we saw in the window. I wanted her to buy it; but she said, No, if we were going that expensive journey, we couldn’t afford it, and she must do without, that spring. I showed it to them, and ‘Now, children,’ I said, ‘what do you think of that for the chick that your Easter egg hatched?’ And they said it was the most beautiful bonnet they had ever seen, and it would just exactly suit mamma. But I saw they were holding something back, and I said, sharply, ‘Well?’ and they both guiltily faltered out: ‘The _bird_, you know, papa,’ and I remembered that they belonged to the society of Bird Defenders, who in that day were pledged against the decorative use of dead birds or killing them for anything but food. ‘Why, confound it,’ I said, ‘the bird is the very thing that makes it an Easter-egg chick!’ but I saw that their honest little hearts were troubled, and I said again: ‘Confound it! Let’s go in and hear what the milliner has to say.’ Well, the long and short of it was that the milliner tried a bunch of forget-me-nots over the bluebird that we all agreed was a thousand times better, and that if it were substituted would only cost three dollars more, and we took our Easter-egg chick home in a blaze of glory, the children carrying the bandbox by the string between them.
“Of course we had a great time opening it, and their mother acted her part so well that I knew she was acting, and after the little ones were in bed I taxed her with it. ‘Know? Of course I knew!’ she said. ‘Did you think they would let you _deceive_ me? They’re true New-Englanders, and they told me all about it last night, when I was saying their prayers with them.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘they let you deceive _me_; they must be true Westerners, too, for they didn’t tell me a word of your knowing.’ I rather had her there, but she said: ‘Oh, you goose–‘ We were young people in those days, and goose meant everything. But, really, I’m ashamed of getting off all this to you hardened bachelors, as I said before–“
“If you tell many more such stories in this club,” Minver said, severely, “you won’t leave a bachelor’s in it. And Rulledge will be the first to get married.”
The Chick Of The Easter Egg was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Sun, Apr 21, 2019